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Chapter 36

Khupah--Sunken well--Caravanserai--Night marching--Kudeshk--The
Fishark and Sara ranges--Lhas--The
pass--Whirlwinds--Robbers--Fezahbad--The dangers of a telegraph
wire--An accident--Six villages--Deposits of sand and
gravel--Bambis--The people--Mosquitoes--A Persian house--Weaving
loom--Type of natives--Clothing--Sayids.

Early in the afternoon Khupah (altitude 5,920 feet) was reached, with its very large and dirty caravanserai to the west, just outside the town wall. From the roof--the only clean part of the hostelry--one obtains a good panoramic view of the town. It is built in a most irregular shape, and is encircled by a castellated mud wall with round turrets. There is a humble dome of a mosque rising somewhat higher than all the other little domes above each dwelling.

Feeble attempts at raising a bazaar have been made on different sites in the town, where bits of arcades have been erected, but there are no signs about the place of a flourishing industry or trade. The majority of houses, especially in the northern part of the city, are in ruins. The principal thoroughfare is picturesque enough, and on the occasion of my visit looked particularly attractive to me, with its huge trays of delicious grapes. They were most refreshing to eat in the terrific heat of the day. One peculiarity of the place is that most doorways of houses are sunk--generally from one to three feet--below the level of the street.

Between the caravanserai and the city is a sunken well with flat roof and four ventilating shafts to keep the water cool. Further away, are seven more buildings--probably dead-houses--and a garden. The little range north of the city is quite low, and has in front of it a pyramidal dune--a similar deposit to those we have already noticed to the north-west in the morning on our march to this place, but much higher.

South of the town many trees and verdant gardens are visible, and to the West the immense stretch of flat--some sixty miles of it that we had travelled over from Isfahan.

For want of a better amusement I sat on the roof to watch the sunset, while Sadek cooked my dinner. The nearer hills, of a bright cobalt blue, faded into a light grey in the distance, the sky shone in a warm cadmium yellow, and beneath stretched the plain, of a dark-brown bluish colour, uninterrupted for miles and miles, were it not for one or two tumbled-down huts in the immediate foreground, and a long, snake-like track winding its way across the expanse until it lost itself in the dim distance.

Directly below, in the courtyard of the caravanserai, four camels squatted round a cloth on which was served straw mixed with cotton seeds, that gave flavour to their meal. The camels slowly ground their food, moving their lower jaws sideways from right to left, instead of up and down as is usual in most other animals; and some of the caravan men placidly smoked their kalians, while others packed up their bundles to make ready for their departure as soon as the moon should rise. In another corner of the courtyard my own caravan man groomed the mules, and around a big flame a little further off a crowd of admiring natives gazed open-mouthed at Sadek boiling a chicken and vegetables for my special benefit.

We were to make a night march, as the heat of the day was too great to travel in. At three in the morning, yawning and stretching our limbs when we were roused by the charvadar,[5] we got on the mules and made our departure. The cold was intense, and the wind blowing with all its might from the west. Six miles off we passed Kamalbek, then six miles further the large village of Moshkianuh in ruins, with a few green trees near it.

The plain on which we are travelling rises gently up to the village of Kudeshk at the foot of the mountain (altitude 6,750 feet). We ascend gradually between hills to the north and south and find ourselves in another flat valley, about three quarters of a mile broad and one mile and a half long. (Altitude 7,200 feet.) We are surrounded by hills, and find two villages, one to the east, the other to the west of the valley. The latter possesses buildings with masonry walls instead of the usual mud ones, and also masonry enclosures round wheat-fields and fruit-tree groves.

We continue to rise until the highest point of the plain is reached, 7,620 feet. Two or three smaller hamlets are found in the centre of the plain.

A second basin is found on proceeding east, with here and there miserable clusters of trees; otherwise everything is as barren as barren could be. On the reddish hills the rocky portion shows through at the summit only, whereas the bases are enveloped in a covering of sand and salt. To the north the Fishark and Sara mountain range extends in a general direction of N.W. to S.E., and its formation is quite interesting. Due north of us the eye is attracted by a peculiar hill, a double cone, two pointed, and much redder in colour than the hills near it.

On nearing the mountains many small villages appear. Yazih village has a solid stone wall round it. Wheat is cultivated by the natives, good water being obtainable here in small but limpid streams. Then we have the old village of Lhas, now rejoicing in the new name of Mazemullahmat, and near it, Fezahbad, where I halted.

I strolled in the afternoon a mile from the latter village to the pass, 8,000 feet above sea level. Directly in front of the pass (at 110° bearings magnetic) stands a high peak, and beyond it to the right of the observer (at 140° b.m.) another and higher summit.

We leave behind to the W.N.W. the high Sara mountain range, no peaks of which, I estimated, rose above 10,000 feet. W.N.W. (at 280° b.m.) is a most curious conical hill, standing isolated and very high above the plain.

Among the most common sights of these parts are the whirlwinds--the tourbillons,--each revolving with terrific rapidity round its own axis and raising to the sky a cylindrical column of dust. They further move along the country in a spasmodic manner, but never so fast that they cannot be avoided. The diameter of the wind columns I observed by the dust carried with it, varied from 3 feet to 20 feet.

The mountains we are travelling on are said to be somewhat unsafe, the villagers being given to attacking caravans, and robber bands coming here for shelter when it becomes unsafe for them to be on the Kashan-Yezd high road. In fact, while resting in the house of Haji-Mulla Ahmed at Fezahbad, a curious lot of men appeared, who, notwithstanding the remonstrances of Sadek and Haji, broke into the house in a most boisterous manner, demanding food of the landlord. They were armed with revolvers and old Martini rifles, and had plenty of cartridges about their persons. They seemed quite taken aback to find a European inside the room. They changed their attitude at once, and became quite polite.

I entertained them to tea, of which they drank gallons. I cannot say that I was particularly charmed with their faces, but their manner was certainly most courteous. They showed me their rifles--English Martinis with additional gold ornamentations of lion and sun, such as one sees in thousands all over Persia. I asked them where they got them from. They said they came from the Persian Gulf.

Haji Mulla Ahmed, the founder of the village, was a fine old fellow with a kindly face, eyes shining like beads under an overhanging brow, and a crimson beard dyed with henna. He appeared rather sulky at this unwonted visit, and more sulky still later when the visitors left me and he had to provide food for them. He said that the robbers frequently called upon him, and were a great drain on his supplies.

When we left at 1.45 a.m. to go across the pass, he advised Sadek and myself to load our rifles and keep a sharp look-out. As I had already measured the altitude of the pass in the afternoon I had no particular object in keeping awake, so I slung the rifle to my saddle and dozed off on my mule as we were slowly winding our way up to the summit. The long night marches were so dreary and the sound of the mules' bells so monotonous that it was most difficult to keep awake. One gradually learns to balance one's self quite well on the saddle while asleep, and it does shorten the long hours of the night very considerably. Occasionally one wakes up abruptly with a jolt, and one fancies that one is just about to tumble over, but although I suppose I must have ridden in my life hundreds of miles while asleep on the saddle, I have never once had a fall in the natural course of affairs. The animals, too, are generally so intelligent that they do for one the balancing required and manage to keep under the rider.

On that particular night I was extremely sleepy. I opened my eyes for a second when we reached the pass and began to descend on the other side, but sleepiness overcame me again. I was riding the first mule in the caravan. Unexpectedly I received a fearful blow in the face, and I was very nearly torn off the saddle. There was a curious metallic buzzing resounding in the air, and before I had time to warn those that came after, Sadek, who came next, was knocked down, and the mules, frightened at this unusual occurrence, stampeded down the steep incline. It was the telegraph wire hanging loose right across the road that had caused the accident. The road was in zig-zag, and was crossed several times by the wire which was laid more or less in a straight line. But this, of course, I did not know, so a few minutes later, before we had time to bring the runaway mules to a stop, the wire, unseen, was again met with a foot or so above the ground. It caught the mules on the legs, and as they were tied to one another, and were carried on by the impetus of the pace at which we were going, all the animals tumbled down one on the top of the other in a heap. The packs got mercilessly undone, and it took us the best part of an hour to disentangle all and get things straight again.

The cold was bitter. Some two miles East of the pass there were two roads, one leading to Nain, the other to Nao Gombes. We took the latter and shorter route, and with some sense of relief now we left the telegraph line, which proceeds to Nain.

On the plateau east of the pass, we found six small villages, the most eastern--Eshratawat (Ishratabad)--being the largest (altitude 6,800 ft.). When the sun was about to rise we more clearly distinguished a grey, sombre, mountainous mass to the east, sharply indented at its summit, like the teeth of a gigantic saw, and ending abruptly on the northern terminus.

We had come between mountains, and some twelve miles from Fezahbad we reached Kudarz (altitude 6,580 ft.), a village situated at the foot of the range we had crossed. As the sun peeped above the mountains close by to the east a large plain disclosed itself before the observer. A long mountain range, bluish and indistinct, could just be perceived in the distance, bounding the plain to the north. Some low, semi-spherical and a few conical hills, and also a somewhat higher and rugged rocky elevation, were found on entering the plain from the west.

Oskholun village lies in the plain 16 miles from Fezahbad. At the foot of the mountains on one's right one notices a curious deposit of sand and gravel, cushion shaped, rising in a gentle incline up the mountain side to a height of 150 feet. It would be interesting to find out exactly how these accumulations have formed, and whether the wind or water or both are responsible for them.

On arriving at Bambis (altitude 5,660 ft.) Sadek was in a great state of mind to find a suitable house where we could put up, as there were no caravanserais. Several of the principal people in the town offered me their own houses, and eventually, after careful inspection, I accepted the cleanest.

Of course, in small, out-of-the-way villages no great luxury could be expected even in dwellings of well-to-do people, but after entering by a miserable door and going through a filthy passage, one came to a nice little court with an ornamental tank of somewhat fetid water. Swarms of mosquitoes rose from the floating leaves of the water plants as soon as we appeared and gave us a very warm reception. In a few seconds we were stung all over.

The women folks were made to stampede to the upper storey on our arrival, where they remained concealed while we stayed in the house, and the younger male members of the family hastily removed all the bedding and personal belongings from the principal room, which I was to occupy. Clouds of dust were raised when an attempt was made to sweep the dried mud floor. Out of the windows of the upper storey the women flung handsome carpets, which Sadek duly spread upon the floor.

The room was a very nice one, plastered all over and painted white, enriched with adhering dried leaves of red roses forming a design upon the ceiling. There were nine receptacles in the walls, and four more in the sides of the chimney piece. Next to this room was another similar one, and opposite in the courtyard a kind of alcove was used as a kitchen. It had a raised part of mud bricks some three feet high and about as broad, on which was fixed the weaving loom that stretched right across the court when in use. A hole was made in the raised portion, in which the weaver sat when at work, so as to keep the legs under the loom.

The loom is simple enough, the two sets of long horizontal threads being kept at high tension by an iron bar fixed into the cylindrical wooden rollers, round which the threads are rolled. There is then a vertical arrangement for moving the long horizontal sets of threads alternately up and down by means of pedals, a cross thread being passed between them with a spool, and beaten home each time with the large comb suspended in a vertical position. The threads are kept in position by two additional combs which represent the width of the cloth, and in which each horizontal thread is kept firm in its central position by a clever device of inverted loops between which it is passed and clenched tight. The cloth is rolled round a wooden cylinder. It is extremely strong and durable. Almost each house has a weaving loom.

On one side of the court was a recess in the wall for valuables. The padlock was closed by means of a screw. By the side of the kitchen one found the lumber and refuse room, and there were corresponding arrangements on the floor above. Unlike other Persian houses this was lighted by windows with neat woodwork, instead of by the usual skylight hole in the dome of the room.

The natives at this village were very handsome. There was a touch of the Afghan type in the men, and the women had fine faces with magnificent eyes. One found firm mouths with well-cut and properly developed lips, in contrast to the weak, drooping mouths of the people one had met in the western cities; and the noses were finely chiselled, with well-defined nostrils. There was no unsteadiness in the eyes, so common to the Persians of the north-west,--and these fellows consequently presented quite an honest appearance, while the overhanging brow added a look of pensiveness. The skull was peculiarly formed, slanting upwards considerably from the forehead to an abnormal height, and giving the cranium an elongated shape. The ears, too, generally malformed or under-developed in most Persians, were better shaped in these people, although by no means perfect. They, nevertheless, showed a certain refinement of blood and race.

In the matter of men's clothing it was gratifying to find the ugly pleated frockcoats discarded--or, rather, never adopted--and long picturesque shirts and ample trousers worn instead, held together by a kamarband. Over all was thrown a brown burnous, not unlike that of the Bedouins, and the head was wound in an ample turban of the Hindoo pattern.

Children wore short coats ornamented with embroidery and shells at the back and pretty silver buttons in front. Their little caps, too, were embellished with shells, beads, or gold braiding.

Nearly all male natives, old and young, suffered from complaints of the eyes, but not so the women,--probably because they spent most of the time in the house and did not expose themselves to the glare of the sun and salty dust, which seemed to be the principal cause of severe inflammation of the eyes.

Bambis village was greatly dependent upon Isfahan for its provisions, and therefore everything was very dear. Excellent vegetables, shalga, sardek, churconda, and pomegranates were nevertheless grown, by means of a most elaborate and ingenious way of irrigation, but the water was very brackish and dirty. Felt filters were occasionally used by the natives for purifying the drinking water.

There were a number of Sayids living at Bambis, who looked picturesque in their handsome green turbans; they were men of a splendid physique, very virile, simple in manner, serious and dignified, and were held in much respect by their fellow villagers.


[5] Charvadar--Caravan man.